Why I Went to Grad School (and didn’t stay for more)

I get asked this question a lot.

When I applied to grad school, I was at a crossroads (wanted to become a writer but wasn’t sure how) and had a Day Job I needed to get out of since I wasn’t yet at the point where I thought of it as a Day Job.  Years before, someone had suggested grad school as the main path for people who want to be writers, and I always held on to that in this back-of-my-mind kind of way.  So when other options weren’t panning out, applying to a funded grad school program seemed like a good thing to try.

I finished a two-year creative writing master’s degree at a large university in a rural midwestern state.  The university English department funded my MA through an assistantship, which basically means I got my tuition paid for and earned a small living stipend in exchange for working while in grad school, first as a research assistant, then teaching English comp to freshman.  My stipend was $11,000 for the first year and $16,000 for the second year, and fortunately $11,000 goes a lot farther in the Midwest than in the Northeast since rents and living costs are WAY cheaper.  The stipend was only good for the school year, so in the summer I kept the bills paid using my savings, an extra assistantship I’d picked up, and a landscaping job I worked a few days a week.

Unfortunately, funded masters degrees like the one I finished are disappearing fast, and more and more people pursuing creative writing degrees are paying for them through loans or by doing low-residency programs so they can work their regular jobs while they write.  I consider programs like these a whole different ball game because there’s a bigger financial investment involved, which means more risk.  Since academic jobs for humanities and arts graduates aren’t exactly in high supply, going into debt can be a big decision, as the many graduates with over $70,000 in loans can tell you.

But in terms of my funded deal where I could work and take on debt, I got a tremendous amount out of those two years, since grad school suited my goals and provided a shit-ton of experience:


I Became a Better Writer

I started my creative writing degree with a barely finished draft of a novel that…needed work.  Unfortunately my writing chops weren’t yet developed enough to let me see the mistakes I’d made, so I had to sit through a lot of workshops hearing my writing get mercilessly torn apart.  In addition to being really rough on your self-esteem, this is how you improve.

Probably the biggest benefit of a creative writing program is getting to hear other people’s opinions on your work, since in writing workshops you’re pretty much forced to read and digest what your fellow grad students are working on.  Hearing these genuine (and often cut-throat) reactions is valuable for any writer because you can see which parts of your writing make people confused, which things are getting lost, and which are beyond repair.  You learn to look past people’s advice and find the answer to that far more valuable question: How did these people really feel when they were reading my work?

Once you understand how feedback works, it’s a lot easier to ruthlessly edit your writing, which is the main step to self-improvement.  Grad school helped me with that a LOT, and while I probably could have gotten that practice another way, the program provided a structured, intensified way to make it happen.


I Got Solid Contacts and Experience

Universities are hubs—there’s a lot of people there, a lot going on, and a lot of job postings.  I found my first few editing jobs through the university English department listserv, and my first-year job doing publicity work for a literary journal provided a much-needed skill boost to my resume (“Collaborating with businesses?  I did that in grad school.  Social media marketing?  Been there!”).  I also got a lot of editorial experience, worked a publishing internship, and did a lot of freelancing—all opportunities I wouldn’t have found while working my Day Job back home.

A lot of people focus on grad school as a stepping stone to an academic career while forgetting the countless other opportunities you can scoop up in the process.  Karen Kelsky over at The Professor Is In has countless articles about using your grad degrees to move out of academia into other fields, and I agree that the critical thinking and technical skills you can pick up grad school are easily transferable to any number of jobs—as long as you keep your eyes open and aren’t afraid to try new things.


I Learned About the Publishing Business

I was lucky in that my writing program focused every year on bringing actual agents and editors to campus so we could practice showing them our work, making pitches, and even going out for a few business drinks.  Meeting people whose jobs are entirely focused on the business end of writing was a cold slap in the face—these people thought differently, talked differently, and had different priorities than any writer I’d ever met, and showed me the importance of all the non-creative stuff that comes with the job.

Again, this goes back to the idea of business contacts and opportunities—I could have researched how to write query letters, how contracts work, and what the Authors Guild is while working my old Day Job, but being in the writing program put all that stuff in one easily accessible place.


Masters Credentials Can Mean Something (but aren’t a be all end all)

With more people getting graduate degrees than ever before, an M.A. next to someone’s name isn’t a magic ticket to job success, but it can definitely open up new opportunities and help you stand out from the crowd.  I’ve found that certain people take me more seriously when I tell them I have a masters degree—it’s an easy way to make a good first impression, especially in an age where robots do a lot of the resume screening at large companies.

The piece of paper I got after graduation (which I didn’t go to—I picked up my diploma later because I didn’t want to sit through a three-hour ceremony or pay the $80 fee) was in a lot of ways the least important thing I got out of grad school.  I certainly didn’t feel any different after I got it—it was a much bigger deal when I put the finishing touches on my novel a few months later.


I Felt More Focused On My Work

This is the final, invisible takeaway from grad school.  When I worked my forty-hour-a-week Day Job, I had to slot in time on evenings and weekends to do my writing and be the creative person I wanted to be, which was a real barrier to my improvement as a writer.  In grad school, though, I had more control over my time: I could write in the mornings, divide my day into larger productivity chunks, and prioritize my work over less important things.  Sitting down to write also felt a lot easier knowing I needed thirty more pages for a workshop deadline the following week.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still crazy busy all the time: I was taking classes, teaching, going to lectures, and working side jobs, but I found that all of these things complemented each other in meaningful ways, so that instead of working an unrelated Day Job that distracted me from my creative work, being in a literary atmosphere sharpened my thought process and intensified that same creative work.  I found myself thinking about my novel more, prioritizing it on my scale of things to do, and making more progress during my work sessions.  I felt razor-focused all the time in everything I was doing, and those work habits persisted even after grad school was over.


So Why Didn’t You Get a PhD?

I also got asked this question a lot my second year when a lot of my classmates were applying to PhD programs and were surprised I wasn’t too.  When I first got to grad school, I was open to following the standard academic path, but the more time I spent there, the more I realized that my goals didn’t align with academia’s.  I’d gotten so much out of grad school already, but the payout was getting lower every semester.  Three to five years of a PhD would be more of the same: sure, I’d learn things and develop skills, but not at the rate I had during my first two years.  If I wanted to keep growing, I needed to move on.

There’s also the very real argument that while masters degrees are more versatile in the working world, PhDs are more specialized, and serve the primary purpose of preparing applicants for professor jobs in academia (though again, the Professor Is In speaks to what PhDs can do in other fields too).  The problem is that a lot of these academic jobs aren’t as well paid, or as available as they used to be, meaning they’re not a safe bet for people looking to establish careers.  So for a writer like me who’s not hell-bent on academic stability, more grad school wouldn’t have been a good use of my time.

The decision to move on after my MA taught me a lot about what I wanted, and how the academic system I’d been a part of is mostly designed as an overly structured and now outdated model where bright young grad students are groomed for an adequate number of well-paid professor jobs in a well-funded and expanding university system.  Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t quite exist anymore, and if young people want to use grad school in the humanities as a path to upward mobility, we’ve got to be more versatile with what we put into it and what we get out of it.

All of us have different goals, needs, and desires, and I believe grad school can be a big step in the right direction for a lot of us—as long as we’re focused, know what we want, and stay flexible.

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